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The Crazy Rich Asians author knows super-rich fashion

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It’s midnight in LA, where Kevin Kwan lives, but this is his preferred time for a phone call. “I’m a night bird,” he says. “If I was doing an interview at 8am, my brain would be foggy and not well-caffeinated . . . I swear to God I will be much better at midnight.”

Indeed, the Singapore-born author of bestseller Crazy Rich Asians has his wits about him as he discusses his latest novel, Lies and Weddings. It follows eligible British-Chinese aristocratic Rufus Leung Gresham as his former supermodel mother from Hong Kong seeks to save the family fortunes by marrying him off to a moneyed woman.

Kwan, 51, tells me the book is “my own spin on the English country-house novel”, albeit with more exotic locations such as Hawaii, Beverly Hills and Marrakech as well as a stately home, while the novelist Plum Sykes encapsulates it perfectly as “Crazy Rich Asians mated with Saltburn”. The 2018 film adaptation of Kwan’s 2013 debut Crazy Rich Asians became Hollywood’s highest-grossing romantic comedy in over a decade and its first to feature a mainly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993.

A scene from the 2018 film adaptation of Kwan’s book ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ © Alamy

His debut also set out his signature themes: private-jet-wealthy Asian dynasties, social climbing and late-capitalist excess. Kwan was well ahead of the most recent wave of wealth-porn dramas such as The White Lotus and Succession, both of which are knowingly referenced in Lies and Weddings.

In addition to a new focus on biracial identity and a plot with more twists than an Elsa Peretti for Tiffany corkscrew, in the latest novel Kwan skewers how the global rich roll with anthropological levels of detail about their fashion and lifestyle. Characters compete to assert their cool factor through Dolce & Gabbana couture, Wallace Chan diamonds, a futuristic 118 WallyPower yacht or even getting high by licking hallucinogenic toads.

While he doesn’t explicitly mention licking any amphibians, the references are based on Kwan’s own research and observations. He tells me: “I don’t write about any place I haven’t been to or restaurant where I haven’t actually tried the food. I have to make sure it’s good enough to be in the book or appropriate to the character.”

Kwan has loved people-watching ever since his childhood in Singapore as part of an old-money family: his grandfather was the country’s first western-trained ophthalmologist, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Now the coffee shops of West Hollywood provide fertile ground for his observations, not least the endless women in skin-tone leggings and bra tops. (“It’s gone way beyond yoga, everyone looks like they are in medical undergarments.”)

While Kwan proves a vivacious conversationalist generally, it’s the foibles of fashion that really seem to animate him. (Although alongside laughing at the spectacle that is humans trying to look cool, he makes sure to add, “I hope you know that I am being tongue in cheek.”)

“When I think of a scene and a character walking into a room, I always think about what they’re wearing from head to toe . . . I actually keep folders of images of clothing and outfits for every single character and every single scene,” says Kwan. Some of the observations made when the action relocates to Beverly Hills are the most acute.

When the character Eden Tong, a down-to-earth young British-Asian doctor, comes to LA, she notes that “the rich kids all dress like old men and the old men dress like kids”. Is this something Kwan has clocked? “The rich Beverly Hills kids . . . they’re the ones in Loro Piana moccasins and cashmere cardigans . . . like impeccably dressed old Italian men. Their fathers are the CEOs, studio heads or moguls and they’re wearing camouflage shorts, sneakers or those bad Adidas slides. There’s a Peter Pan syndrome thing happening here in LA.”

Lies and Weddings also delivers a takedown of different LA watch tribes through wealthy heiress Daniela, who quips that “Oysters are for real estate brokers hawking overpriced houses in the Bird Streets [an LA celebrity enclave]. Nautiluses are for mid-level entertainment execs. Look at that guy in cargo shorts and flip flips over there — he’s not even wearing a watch.”

Kwan says that it’s the character talking, but that there is also some truth to her observation. Pondering the meaning of eschewing a watch, he ruminates that “the latest trend that I’m seeing amongst the 0.0001 per cent is not quiet luxury. It’s no luxury, it’s anti-luxury. It’s become the ultimate flex to be completely nondescript . . . Like, ‘I don’t even have to wear cashmere. I can go around in flip-flops, shorts and a Bermuda shirt, but I have the best yacht in the harbour down in St Barths’ . . . There is this sense of luxury fatigue.”

Kwan himself seems to identify with this luxury fatigue when it comes to megabrands, which he says “have become so boring”, and the kind of sumptuous holiday resorts that feature in Lies and Weddings.

Kwan prefers more eccentric family-run places, but he did make a point of staying in the Four Seasons Hawaii, which features in the book, because he has to “smell the air in the room to write about it well”. However, he thinks that increasingly, “all these places have the same quiet luxury look. All the art looks the same. They’re all vaguely fake Cy Twomblys, scrawls on canvases. But for me it’s always fascinating to see how people are distilling the look of wealth in these spaces, how rich people feel comfortable.”

Kevin Kwan, in jeans, black T-shirt and blue-and-white jacket, stands in a doorway, one hand on the ornate wooden door
Kevin Kwan: ‘ What I hope to accomplish with my books is to show these are complex characters’ © Jessica Lehrman/The New York Times

Aha. But has he made any rich people he knows feel uncomfortable with his satire? “I think everyone’s in on the joke . . . and to me you can tell a lot more truth with satire. When people see that and they recognise themselves, they’re not feeling like they’re attacked. It’s more like, ‘Oh my God, that’s hilarious, right. Of course he’s wearing a baseball cap because he got a hair transplant.’”

His portrayal of the down-on-their-luck aristo family of Lies and Weddings “turns up the volume for the sake of entertainment”, but he likes to think there is “some authenticity to them”. What he really wanted to do with this book was to “look at Asians outside of Asia. To just see what happens in that collision of cultures. Asians are moving, emigrating, falling in love with different people all around the world . . . and that has particular challenges . . . What I hope to accomplish with my books is to show these are complex characters.”

Does he have any other literary heroes, beyond Trollope and Jane Austen, who inspire this goal. The answer is surprising: “God bless Shirley Conran. I read Lace when I was 11, and she really went for it, creating these exotic, fantastical, decadent stories. She wasn’t afraid of writing about rich people, but it wasn’t just about them being rich. It was the intrigues, the foibles, the tragedies, the triumphs.”

Ultimately Kwan says he wants to show his readers a good time. “Make you chuckle, make you hungry, make you wish you were sitting on the beach at a beautiful resort.” Just don’t look at the check.

‘Lies and Weddings’ is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on June 20

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